Surrender to the Sheikh (paperback)
Surrender to the Sheikh (paperback)
- Publisher : Bay Books (August 24, 2020)
- Paperback : 182 pages
- Item Weight : 3 ounces
- Dimensions : 5 x 0.41 x 8 inches
READ A SAMPLE
READ A SAMPLE
“That woman is becoming more impossible, if anything!” Xander scowled back at the group he and his brother, Roshan, had left behind in the hall of the desert hunting lodge in which the kings of Havilah always met. “Can’t we do something about her?”
Roshan sat down and put his feet on the coffee table. He hooked his arms across the back of the chair, looking for all the world like the king of the country he was no longer king of.
“What do you suggest?” he asked facetiously. “Have her deposed and exiled from her own country? Come on, Xander. We have to work with her. She’s too important.”
Xander couldn’t take his eyes off the petite woman who still held court over Amir, Zavian and Shakira. “And she knows it, and she’s taking full advantage of it.”
Roshan followed Xander’s gaze. “Shakira gets on well with her. She says she’s really smart.” He shrugged. “I don’t believe she’s being deliberately provocative. She’s simply a woman who knows what she wants.”
“And no doubt she wants a husband. I pity the poor man she marries.”
“Apparently, she’s showing no inclination to marry. Quite the opposite, in fact. Shame really. She’d be a great match for you.”
Xander was so incensed he couldn’t speak immediately. Roshan gave him a double take and then calmly took another sip of his coffee.
“Perfect,” Roshan added with a smile.
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”
Roshan’s grin widened. “Maybe. It makes a change from me being the subject of matrimonial gossip and conjecture.”
“Well you can stop conjecturing about me and Elaheh. She’s made it quite clear she can’t stand me.”
Roshan tilted his head to one side and pursed his lips. “I’m not so sure. Sometimes, I think the way she looks at you and makes you a target of her cutting remarks reveals an uncommon interest.”
Xander tossed down his phone in irritation and looked over Roshan’s shoulder at the woman in question. “You’re crazy,” he muttered, his eyes lingering on the upright way Elaheh stood, her back ramrod straight, and her thick dark hair pulled severely into an elaborate hairstyle. For a moment he wondered how long it would be when released from its tight bindings—if it were ever released. He couldn’t imagine Queen Elaheh ever being anything other than perfectly groomed. He smiled to himself; she probably went to sleep with her hair like that. But it did have a certain luster and fullness suggesting it was long. It probably fell to her bottom. His eyes lingered at where that bottom would be, hidden beneath a swathe of white robes. Then she turned to him and caught his eye. And for a moment their gazes clashed and tangled, and there was a flare of something he couldn’t put his finger on. In ordinary circumstances he’d have known what to call it—attraction. But these were definitely not ordinary circumstances, and she was definitely no ordinary woman. This was a woman who hated him, he reminded himself. A woman who couldn’t speak to him without either insulting or criticizing him. A woman who he hated right back.
He scowled at her and she looked away. Xander turned back to Roshan. “I repeat, Elaheh has no interest in me, and I have no interest in her.”
“But you will marry, won’t you?”
“Of course. I know my duty. I will marry and produce heirs as is expected.”
Roshan nodded. “Good. Shakira asked me to ask you if you had anyone in mind.”
His gaze shifted to Elaheh and, annoyed at his weakness, he glared at her back. “Yes, as it happens and she’s nothing like Elaheh.”
Roshan raised his eyebrow. “You have? Who?”
Xander ran a finger around his collar as if it were suddenly too tight. “A friend of mine from university. She’s an expert on historical architecture. She’d be most suitable.”
“Most suitable? That doesn’t sound like a match made in heaven.”
Xander glared at his brother. “We can’t all fall in love like you did with Shakira. That’s a one-off.”
Roshan shook his head. “No, it’s not. Look at Amir and Ruby, look at Zavian and Gabrielle. Two other couples who are crazy about each other.
It was Xander’s turn to grunt. “I don’t do crazy. I don’t want crazy.” He cleared his throat. “Ashley is an academic—more interested in her feminist research than falling crazy in love.”
“Sounds a riot,” murmured Roshan, rolling his eyes.
“There you go again! ‘Riot’, ‘crazy’—these are things I refuse to have in my life.”
Silence stretched and thickened and Xander knew what his brother was thinking.
“You used to, Xander, when you were young. Before—”
Xander shot his hand out, his palm flat against his brother’s words, determined to stop their flow. He refused to hear any more. “Don’t go there, Roshan.”
Roshan pressed his lips together and nodded slowly. “Okay, for now. But you have to some time, if you’re ever to move forward.”
Xander shifted his gaze away from Roshan, away from Elaheh, to the window which looked out toward the empty desert—a constant reminder of everything he didn’t wish to remember. Move forward? Xander felt as if he’d moved backward. Back to this place, his country, the only place in the world it seemed he couldn’t avoid, and which was full of harsh memories which he was determined to suppress. He gave an ambiguous grunt, which Roshan took for agreement.
“Okay. So this Ashley is a possibility. Why don’t you describe to me your ideal wife and Shakira and I’ll see if we can’t help with some introductions.”
“I’m fine with Ashley.”
“Does she know yet?”
Xander shook his head once. “But she will. She’s coming to visit in a few months.”
“Okay. So I hope that goes well for you. But, in the mean time, let’s see if we can drum up some competition for Ashley. Describe your perfect woman.” Roshan sat back expectantly.
Xander blinked as he continued to gaze at the distant horizon while his mind was suddenly filled with Elaheh’s face. Whatever she looked like, he told himself firmly, he wanted the opposite.
Xander suddenly remembered the way Elaheh’s mouth was level to his chest as she looked up to him. Her breath against his neck had been like the scorching simoom desert winds, whittling away whatever it hits to its essence. He cleared his throat.
“My wife will be tall,” said Xander, walking briskly to the desk he was using. He picked up a report, looked at it without reading it and then placed it firmly on a pile of outgoing correspondence. But the paperwork failed to remove the vision of Elaheh’s eyes, bright against her dark skin. He glanced up at Roshan who was observing him closely. “And pale. Definitely pale.”
“Pale?” Roshan raised an eyebrow. “So, not a local woman then?”
Xander shook his head and looked at the paperwork again. “No.”
Xander tossed down the paper, put his hands in his pockets and looked into the mid-distance. Elaheh’s beautiful lips rarely settled into their natural shape. They were always moving, always communicating her thoughts. “Quiet. Not much to say for herself but when she does speak…” He smiled to himself at the thought of Elaheh’s voice. He always felt it was perhaps the one true thing about her that she wasn’t able to disguise. It spoke more truly than the words she uttered, and its dulcet tones never failed to bypass all his objections to her and hit the target he managed to hide from everyone else. “Her voice will be soft, musical and seductive.” So, perhaps his ideal wife wouldn’t be the exact opposite. Okay to let that slip in, maybe, but he had to be firm on everything else. His future wife must be the opposite to Elaheh in every other way.
“That’s some list. Anything else?”
Xander turned to his older brother. “Curvaceous, large breasts.” He turned away. “I like large breasts.” He paused for a moment as he imagined Elaheh’s small breasts. “And”—he swept his hand in a careless gesture—“you know, easy company. I don’t want anyone who’s hard work.” He picked up a book and riffled through it for something to do.
“You’re very definite in your views. I’m guessing you’re describing this Ashley person.”
And, to his surprise, Xander realized he was. He narrowed his gaze onto his paperwork, comparing the two women in his mind’s eye. The one, Elaheh, he couldn’t stand. That much was obvious. The other, Ashley, he got on well with. She was beautiful and everything he’d just described. His frown deepened. Then why didn’t she arouse his passions like Elaheh did?
He slammed the book shut. And that was exactly how he wanted it. If there was no passion, there was no pain. A simple equation, and one he fully intended to cling to.
“Don’t bother looking for a wife for me, Roshan. I’ll sort that out for myself.”
Roshan sighed. “Ashley.”
“Yes. Dr Ashley Maitland and myself will create a formidable team. We’re friends. That’s a good start.”
“Maybe,” said Roshan.
Xander couldn’t ignore the doubt which was redolent in that one word.
“No maybe about it.”
Roshan grimaced. “I don’t think the woman of your dreams can be described in such specific terms. You sound so sure about what you want.”
“I am. Because I know exactly what I don’t want. Or, should I say, who I don’t want to marry, nor have anything to do with.”
“Ah,” replied Roshan, the light suddenly dawning on his face. “I see.”
Xander grunted. “Good. And so do I. When I look at Elaheh, when I hear her carping on at me, I know exactly that she is nothing, absolutely nothing, like the person I wish to marry.” He sat in a chair, feeling suddenly defeated, and looked bleakly at Roshan. He swore with fierce exaggeration under his breath. “Elaheh is a woman to drive a man out of his mind! If I have to spend any more time with her it’ll be too much. If I have to listen to her bossy ideas, I’ll go round the bend. In short, brother, keep me as far away from her as possible. Because if you don’t, I won’t answer for the consequences.”
“Oh dear,” groaned Roshan, taking a few steps away, and pulling out his phone. “Look, I have to go. But I’ll be in touch.”
“This is sudden. I thought you were going to stay for dinner.”
Roshan gave a quick smile. “Change of plan.”
Xander frowned as an unwelcome suspicion formed in the back of his mind. Something he’d said had made Roshan change his mood, and his plans. He mentally went over the previous conversation. He couldn’t move over one particular sentence. He groaned. “You haven’t, have you?”
Roshan smiled, too brightly, his hand gripping the door. “Haven’t what?”
Xander tilted his head to one side and narrowed his eyes, his gaze never leaving Roshan’s. “You know,” he said, in his best menacing voice. “You haven’t arranged anything between me and Elaheh, have you.”
He didn’t raise his intonation at the end of the sentence. It was a statement, not a question.
“Well, funny you should say that.”
Xander didn’t think it funny. He remained silent as he watched his brother carefully.
“As it happens, I spoke to Amir and Zavian the other day and we’re all agreed. The best way to progress the infrastructure and communications project between Sharq Havilah and Tawazun is to have the two rulers discuss it—person to person.” Roshan gestured helplessly. “That way, there will be less going back and forth, and it can progress more quickly.” He gripped the handle, released his grip and then gripped it again. He looked positively nervous, which made Xander nervous. Roshan never looked nervous. “There will just be the two of you. It’ll be easier that way.”
Xander threw the nearest file at Roshan but it landed with a thud against a closed door. And all he could here was laughter from his brother as he walked away. “Definitely easier!” Roshan shouted through the closed door.
“For you maybe,” roared Xander, throwing himself into a chair and looking at the paperwork which now lay strewn across the room. “For you,” he added. “But not for me.”
* * *
Elaheh stood in the entrance to the ancient desert hunting lodge—the site of all the meetings of the kings and queens of Havilah—and felt a sinking in her stomach as she folded up the strange note and pushed it into her pocket and out of her mind.
It wasn’t the first such note, but she’d make sure it was the last. Just not now. This morning she had greater concerns than a letter threatening her safety. She glanced at her faithful vizier, Abzari, who stood to one side, his silent, reassuring presence appreciated in this strange world of politics and posturing in which she’d found herself. And then she looked straight ahead, summoning all her reserves of strength to meet her visitor. For it wasn’t the usual meeting of all the kings and queens, today she’d be meeting only one. And he was late.
She filled her lungs with the hot, dry air of the vast desert which surrounded them. To the others, dwellers in cities, it must seem foreign, she thought. But, to her, born and bred in the nomadic tent cities of the Bedouin, it was home. It was her world and one she understood. That was why she wanted to meet here, rather than the city state of Sharq Havilah—with all its modern towers and busy streets—or her own palace in Tawazun. Here, she had only one thing to contend with, one person to control: King Xander of Sharq Havilah. He was proving unresisting to her demands. But she’d make sure he did as she wanted. In the end.
The hum of the approaching helicopter was like an annoying insect at first, gradually growing louder until the throbbing of its blades filled the air, overtaking the silence with its unwelcome noise. Inwardly, Elaheh flinched; outwardly her eyes narrowed a little. How was it that even the approach of the man was enough to disturb her equilibrium?
She adjusted her scarf around her head as the helicopter hovered above them and descended into the vast courtyard, sand and dust billowing all around them. She didn’t retreat. It wasn’t in her nature.
Xander stepped out of the helicopter with his head down, and strode over to the entrance of the desert palace, his advisors following him. After shooting a narrowed glance at her, his gaze rose and took in the hunting lodge—once a palace fortress—with its ancient mysterious engravings around the entrance and uncompromising red-stone facade designed to repel invaders. Elaheh just wished it was strong enough to repel Xander.
It wasn’t until he came close to her that he met her gaze, which hadn’t wavered from him. Most of the time all she had to do to command people was look at them. Her father had noted that, even as a small child, she had a fierce gaze from which people shrank. It had been her curse, as it had repelled people she hadn’t wished to repel, but it had also proved, in the long run, to be her savior and protector.
“Xander,” she said shortly as he stood before her. She was annoyed to have to look up so far. He was taller than the other kings. And she had to steel herself, grit her teeth to face those eyes. She hated the flutter she felt when she looked into those narrowed, stern, controlling black eyes.
“Elaheh,” he replied with equal brevity.
She waited for the traditional words of greeting. But, as there were none, she turned with a sweep of her gowns and entered the hall.
Even though she couldn’t see him, she sensed his eyes on her. It was like a tickling feeling traveling along her spine. She could feel the fine hairs on the back of her neck prickle and she shivered slightly.
She stopped in the hallway and turned to him.
“Cold?” he asked, looking around. “I guess it is cool in here if you’re not accustomed to air conditioning. And I don’t believe you use it in your palace, do you?”
Anger sparked inside. One, he’d noticed her shiver. She didn’t want him looking at her intently enough to notice her shiver. And two, he couldn’t help but be negative about her ancient palace and traditional way of life.
“It’s not necessary. I guess,” she said, emphasizing the slang word which she never used, but which Xander often did. “If you spend most of your life away from your home, you don’t feel you belong here. And, if that is how you feel, perhaps you should leave.” She flicked her hand dismissively. “Perhaps you should return to the UK or US or wherever you’re from, and your air-conditioned offices and superficial lifestyle.”
He bowed his head to hers, his eyes fierce, but she refused to flinch. “Oh, Elaheh,” he said, and his warm breath swept over her cheeks and neck, causing yet another round of prickles. “I belong. Just as you do. And I’m afraid I’m not going anywhere. I’m King of Sharq Havilah and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“More’s the pity,” she said between gritted teeth.
He withdrew and those dark eyes held a spark of humor. She hated that even more. “You don’t mean it. After all, who would you spar with then?”
The anger became something like fury. She could feel it bubble up but, before she could express herself, he’d turned on his heel, hands in pockets in his usual careless, relaxed manner, and walked toward the meeting room.
There was nothing she could do except follow. She hated following anyone, let alone a man who could make her so angry that she found the vibrations of encounters with him continued to reverberate long after they’d gone their separate ways.
They took their places around the medieval table—its heavily polished patina, together with the over-sized richly-colored rug which covered the stone-flagged floor, creating a warmth to the cavernous hall. In recent times the table had had to seat six kings and queens, rather than the original three Havilahi kings. But, today, there were just the two of them.
Elaheh waved away her maid. She wanted to get down to work. She didn’t want this meeting to go on a moment longer than it had to.
Xander raised an eyebrow as he accepted a cup of coffee—an Italian espresso, Elaheh noted disapprovingly. “You’re not having a coffee?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I’d rather we get down to business. The sooner we begin, the sooner we can go our separate ways.”
He sat back in his chair and sipped his coffee, his eyes never leaving her. Despite herself, she could feel a heat rising in her. She never blushed. Somehow she willed it away.
“You’re not welcoming time alone with me, are you?”
How he managed to place such loaded meaning on the word “alone” defeated her. She placed her hands calmly together and eyed him in silence for a few moments. That usually did it. But not, it seemed in Xander’s case. He looked as cool and unperturbed as if, she imagined, he were sharing a morning coffee with friends at the beach. Not that she’d ever been able—or wanted, she reminded herself—to do such things.
“No,” she said. “So I suggest we begin.”
He shrugged as if he wasn’t bothered either way.
His lack of seriousness ratcheted up her annoyance levels a further notch. It drove down any hint of a blush and the ice which usually ran through her veins returned. “You don’t appear to care whether our discussions are successful, or not.”
“Of course they’ll be successful. Why wouldn’t they be? We both want the same things.”
“Which are?” It was her turn to raise a scornful eyebrow. “Perhaps you’d care to remind me.”
“We both want what each other has.”
Why did she feel he was talking about something far more personal than infrastructure projects? She stopped her mind from making an unwelcome swerve.
“I understand that you need my country’s stability and power and size to bolster your small, pocket-sized country,” she replied. “And I have agreed to help with that. But we need little from you.”
“You are being deliberately provocative.” She’d rattled him. She knew she had, as he carefully replaced his cup into its saucer. His stance hadn’t changed but he’d tensed his jaw. “You may be a large, powerful country, but Sharq Havilah has an infrastructure of which you can only dream.”
“Phh! City skyscrapers, cell phone towers, and western boutiques.” She made another derogatory sound. “These are not things my country needs.”
“Then…” He leaned in to her. “Why are you here?”
She could have kicked herself. Her enmity for this infuriating man had driven her into a corner. He was right. She, and her country, needed his country’s expertise to bring Tawazun into the modern age. She just didn’t want to admit it.
She decided to take the easy route out and take his words at face value. “I am here, because of the treaty I signed with the three countries of Havilah, and with Jazira. I am here because I said I would be.”
“You are here, Elaheh, because you need my help. And, so I suggest you quit attempting to antagonize me—which you won’t succeed at, by the way.”
They glared at each other in stalemate for a few moments. The air crackled between them but with what, Elaheh couldn’t describe. There was animosity, but mixed in with that was an array of other feelings and emotions which left her confused and bewildered. And she couldn’t afford to be either of those things now. She wanted to push him away, to slap his face, to wrestle him to the floor as she used to her cousins. That thought lingered and changed into a very uncousin-like image. It was Elaheh who turned away first, and opened the laptop.
She cleared her throat. “Item one on the agenda is telecommunications.” She looked up at him, over the laptop. “I understand you have some expertise here.”
“Indeed. And you need it, don’t you?” A smile tweaked his lips, as if he’d won the first battle. He may have, but he wasn’t going to win them all, she’d make sure of that.
She licked her lips, as she tried to form the words of capitulation—of admitting that she needed him. They refused to come.
“And then we’ll move to item two,” she said. “Your country’s access to mine, over the mountains.”
His smile fell. She had him there.
“I assume your country’s need to access my country and all its unspoiled heritage and cultural riches is still of interest to you?” She pushed the point home.
He gave one short, sharp nod of the head. Good. They were even again.
“Then let’s begin.”
She was impossible. Of all the women he’d ever met—and he’d met plenty—Queen Elaheh of Tawazun had to be the most obstinate, the coldest, the angriest and the most intractable that it had ever been his misfortune to meet. Sure, she was intelligent and beautiful. But she wielded those God-given gifts as weapons, and with painfully accurate aim.
He was weary of battling with her. At the end of another hard-driven bargain, he stood up.
“Where are you going?” she asked sharply. “We haven’t finished here yet.”
“You might not have, but I have. I need a break.”
“You can have one here.”
“No, I can’t.”
“Why not?” she pursued. She was relentless. Didn’t she ever quit?
He turned around, completely exasperated. “Because, Elaheh, I need a break from you!”
He hadn’t meant to say it. Rudeness wasn’t something he appreciated in others or himself.
She snapped her laptop closed and glared at him. “You, Xander, are rude and uncouth!”
“And you, Elaheh, are a trial to do business with!”
The silence was thick with anger. “A trial?” she said, between tight lips. She rose. “A trial?” she repeated, as she walked around the table towards him. “Do you want to know what a trial really is? It’s being forced to work with someone like you. You have no idea what it’s like to be a Bedouin, no idea of our culture, our life, and yet you return to your place of birth, take up the crown and pretend you are one of us. You’re not one of us, and nothing will ever make you one.”
There, she’d just done it—hit the bullseye with the point of her rapier sword. He felt the sharp thrust at his innermost pain distantly. He’d spent his whole life covering it with layer upon layer of numbness and indifference, topped with the visible layers of arrogance and lazy charm. It fooled everyone except his brother. And he couldn’t believe it hadn’t fooled Elaheh. What she’d done, she’d done by instinct alone. Killer instinct.
He narrowed his gaze, trying to reduce the amount she could see. She advanced on him as if scenting his weakness. She was close now, so close he could see the flecks of gold in her dark eyes—eyes that he’d first thought were like tiger’s eyes. That was before he knew that there were more ways than one in which she resembled a tiger, and none of them were attractive. He gritted his teeth, trying to keep control of his temper.
“Stop it, Elaheh, before one of us says something we’ll regret.”
“I’m not stopping anything!” Her eyes were aflame and she did, indeed, look unstoppable. “I’m being forced to deal with one such as you—a king by default only, a foreigner!”
“Believe me, Elaheh, I’ve a million things I’d prefer to be doing right now, and none of them would be with you. You are the worst, coldest, most charm-free woman it’s ever been my misfortune to meet! No wonder none of the other kings wanted to marry you!”
The formidable look melted away and for a few long, interminable seconds he saw a look of vulnerability and hurt which mingled with his own and made everything a whole lot worse.
He reached out and touched her arm, instinctively needing to make contact, to mend the hurt he’d inflicted. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that.”
Her beautiful eyes now glittered like gold with tears that didn’t fall. She shook her head. “You did mean it. You’re too honest not to speak the truth. That much, at least, I know about you.” She pulled her arm away from him, looking at it as if his touch had burned her.
He reached out again for her. He needed to take away her pain, he needed to bridge the gap that had widened like a treacherous ravine between them. But she tore her arm away and rubbed it. “Don’t touch me. I hate being touched.” This was getting worse.
She backed away from him as if she was frightened of what he might do. He held up his hands. “Elaheh, look, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you, or frighten you. You must know that I’m not the hurting kind.”
She walked quickly to the door.
“Please, Elaheh, don’t let’s leave it like this. I apologize for my stupid comments. I didn’t mean them. It’s just you drive me crazy.”
She slowly turned around. “That’s not my problem.”
He panicked at the thought that she’d walk away and their talks would stall. “No, you’re right. But we can get through this.”
“Of course. Did you think I was leaving? Not before business has been completed. I, Xander, am a professional. I don’t put the personal before business. And neither should you.”
He watched her leave the room with a rustle of her robes, her scent lingering on the air. He took a deep breath of it. At first he’d thought it too strong, not as subtle as a French perfume, but the rich fragrance had filtered into his system somehow and brought a frisson of unwanted emotion with it. What kind he couldn’t have said, as he quickly stifled it.
He needed to take a leaf out of her book and push the personal back where it belonged. Nowhere.
Elaheh smiled at her maid ruefully as she entered her room, instantly allowing the brittle veneer with which she protected herself to melt away, as she accepted a cool drink. She shrugged off her robes, revealing the loose shift dress she wore beneath. Some people wore jeans and shorts under their robes, but she preferred a smart dress based on the traditional. It was white, as were all her clothes. She favored it.
But she didn’t take a sip from her glass. She was too wound up. What Xander said had hurt. She felt the rustle in her pocket and withdrew the folded-up letter. This time she read it properly and she noticed the threat at the end. But more than that, she was concerned about how it had reached her. No one, apart from her close circle of inner advisers knew where she was. She looked around at the maid, and the others who worked close by and suddenly felt distrustful of everyone. And, for the first time in her adult life, she felt scared.